BOSTON (TheStreet) -- "I'm getting angry. You won't like me when I'm angry"
That catchphrase from the old TV series The Incredible Hulk was usually uttered before the meek scientist David Banner, triggered by rage, turned into a green-tinged, destructive monster.
Customer service representatives, retail clerks and waitstaff are among those who probably wish they had a similar heads-up before things turned nasty. On a daily basis, caught in the crossfire, they take the brunt of abuse from dissatisfied patrons when things turn ugly. The advice typically offered to consumers is that all that yelling and screaming isn't going to help your cause and that calmly stating your case -- by phone, letter or email -- is a better way to resolve a problem.
That genteel advice is well-meaning, but is it always effective? Is getting mad a last resort or a good strategy for getting what you want? Does the squeaky wheel get the grease?
Increasingly, Americans are displaying a short attention span and short temper.
A Rasmussen Reports poll last August found that 69% of respondents think they and their fellow Americans are "becoming more rude and less civilized."
Poor service gets some of the blame.
The American Express (AXP) - Get Report Customer Service Barometer, a study released this month, found that more than half of respondents (56%) admit to having lost their temper with a customer service professional. Consumers age 30-49 proved to be the most frequently angered (61%).
Young people are apparently more patient, with more than half of those age 18-29 saying they've "never lost their temper with a service professional."
Americans who have lost their temper due to poor service express their displeasure in a host of ways, including insisting on speaking with a supervisor (74%) and hanging up the phone (44%). Expletives have crossed the lips of 16% of respondents, with men more likely to use "choice words" (20%) compared with women (12%).
Evidence for why such outbursts may carry some weight is found in another stat American Express researchers believe should be "most unsettling for businesses on the receiving end of customer anger" -- that two in five Americans have threatened to switch to a competitor.
It is not just the loss of one customer that will drive companies to placate red-faced critics. In an age of instant feedback via blogs, tweets and online communities, any complaint can reach the eyes of thousands of people, perhaps inspiring them to weigh in with their own dissatisfaction.
"Americans say they tell an average of nine people about good experiences, and nearly twice as many (16 people) about poor ones -- making every individual service interaction important for businesses," the study says.
Americans also vote with their wallets when they encounter subpar service. In the survey, 78% of consumers have bailed on a transaction or not made an intended purchase because of a poor service experience. On the other hand, the promise of better customer service is a draw for shoppers: three in five Americans (59%) would try a brand or company for a better service experience.
Recognizing the need to appease angry customers, and to help keep them calm, Israel-based Exaudios has developed proprietary software that tracks speech patterns and vocal intonations to warn when a caller is about to have a tantrum.
The many concerns about, and efforts to defuse, angry customers means companies are paying attention to all that yelling. The trick, for a consumer, is knowing when to escalate and when to retreat.
Threatening legal action will typically trigger guidelines your customer rep has to follow in such cases, for example: They will be forced to cut off all conversation and refer you to their legal department. Any hope of a speedy resolution is gone at that point.
Threats that go beyond the "I'll cancel my service" or "I'll write a bad Yelp review" variety will also assuredly backfire.
In March, a disgruntled California man's attempt to pay off a $6,500 bank loan with 650,000 pennies made news, but didn't net him much more than additional aggravation (the bank demanded that the loose change be rolled, then rejected the coins anyway). Earlier this month, when an 80-year-old man tried to persuade a Sears (SHLD) customer service rep by making a bomb threat, all he accomplished was to earn a visit from law enforcement.
The art of negotiating -- or better put, haggling -- can benefit from a dose of calculated anger. The key word, however, is "calculated."
In a research paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research, University of California at Berkeley professors Eduardo B. Andrade and Teck-Hua Ho drew the conclusion that kindness and brusque behavior can both be used as bargaining chips.
"It seems plausible that emotional display might play a role when people interact with each other," they wrote. "For example, a waiter smiles when handing over a check to a customer in hope for a good tip. Similarly, a car buyer may inflate her anger when negotiating with a car dealer in order to obtain a lower price. Finally, a professional poker player hides her emotions -- positive or negative -- during a game so as not to reveal her hands. These examples suggest that emotion expression and social interaction may be inherently linked and that the former may be strategically used to influence the outcome of the later."
In a series of what they called "emotion gaming" experiments, the researchers found that aggressive behavior can be just as effective as the sort of fake cheeriness found among those who deal with the public, such as servers or flight attendants. The right dose of red-faced bluster can give one the upper hand when negotiating the cost and terms of a purchase or deal, in part because the other person will believe you are willing to just walk away.
There is a balancing act, however. If the other party thinks you are faking all that testiness, you lose the upper hand. If you go too far, the tables may be turned.
In terms of gaining an upper hand at work, losing your temper can have its advantages.
The caution, according to the 2008 study Can an Angry Woman Get Ahead? by Victoria Brescoll of Yale University and Eric Uhlmann of Northwestern University, is that men are the ones who typically benefit from such raging.
According to their research and three psychological studies: Men who expressed anger in a professional context were conferred higher status than men who expressed sadness. And male and female evaluators conferred lower status on angry female professionals than on angry male professionals.
The explanation offered relates to persisting gender stereotypes. Angry men are perceived as reacting to external factors, while a woman's outbursts are seen as being "internal" and needlessly emotional.
If you want to succeed in business, then, go ahead and kick the water cooler -- so long as you're a guy.
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